How do you pronounce biopic, synod, and Breughel? - and why? Do our cake and archaic sound the same? Where does the stress go in stalagmite? What's odd about the word epergne? As a finale, the author writes a letter to his 16-year-old self.
Date: Fri, 09 Dec 2005 18:12:16 +0100 From: Leonhard Voltmer Subject: Intercultural Communication
AUTHOR: Holliday, Adrian; Hyde, Martin; Kullman, John TITLE: Intercultural Communication SUBTITLE: An advanced resource book SERIES: Routledge Applied Linguistics PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2004
Leonhard A. G. Voltmer, School of Translators and Interpreters, University of Bologna at Forlì
This ''advanced resource book'' targets upper undergraduates and postgraduates on communication studies programmes. It is ultimately about developing skilled communication strategies and principles in a globalizing world.
The book is structured, like the other books in the series, in three main sections, each made up of approximately ten units. Every section features the three themes ''Identity'', ''Otherization'' and ''Representation''. Section A defines concepts, i.e. it presents a variety of definitions for the core ideas and gives extensive examples in which the concepts shine through. Section B explores these concepts further with a series of extensive quotations of usually scholarly writings of the 1990s. As there are some negative or dubious examples, the authors comment on the texts and encourage the student to reflect upon them through numerous tasks. This section makes out about half of the book (page 51-146 out of 213 pages). Section C proposes a series of research tasks and establishes a methodology for addressing intercultural communication.
As to form, the quotations in section B are in very small grey font and require therefore an excellent eye. The references are mainly from the 90s and not abundant. Unfortunately the cited literature appears only summarily and never indicates the page number, so that it is nearly impossible to check the statements in the book. Even worse, the extensively quoted scholars in section B do not figure in the references, and neither do the titles quoted in the quotations (although name and year is given in the text). For a book that is intended to be read across the sections, this is actually a considerable advantage (e.g. p. 146 quotes Triandis. Not being in the bibliography, you have to go back to p. 142 to find the reference. There, the text is quoted in ''extracts'', without dots indicating the omitted text.)
The authors of this book subscribe to a non-essentialist view of culture, as opposed to an essentialist view. The largest part of the book is an apt criticism of a simple ''one nation-one language-one culture'' ideology. However, arguments are much less convincing when the new paradigm, the non-essentialist view, is defined. As the name points out, the concept was coined in opposition. ''People in one culture are'' not ''essentially different from people in another'' and there are ''a lot of cultural similarities'' (p.4). This suggests that the concept of 'culture' remains basically the same and only the perception of its intermingling is different: essentialists deny multiculturalism and are against it, while non-essentialists detect and welcome it. In this direction go the declarations in section C: ''[T]his is not to say that the issue of cultural difference can be hypothesized away. People ... belong to distinct cultural groups which promote 'distinctive capacities and characteristics'. If this were not a reality then there would be no such thing as culture and there would be no need to study 'intercultural communication''' (p.159).
What is then the point of non-essentialism, if culture actually is a hard fact of life with a distinctive content and a name? The criticism of the concept would boil down to a criticism of the (still?) predominant discourse. The same concept filled with other contents: The uncivilized becomes the noble primitive.
In sections A and B the two authors of take a more radical stance: For them, the essentialists ''define the person before understanding the person'', whereas ''the non-essentialist strategy is a moral one to do with how we approach and learn about a person as a human being'' (p. 10). They rebuke even the weaker essentialist position, i.e. the forming of ideal types that act as a template and help us to make working assumptions about the 'default value' of the majority, being well aware that this will be wrong in some cases. They argue that ''we do not behave sufficiently rational in intercultural dealings to be able to work objectively with such templates''. (p. 23) People interpret new information in the light of the default values, and reduce the complexity of the new information up to the point that already on the level of perception confirming information is memorized and competing information blended out -- a well described process in cognitive sciences.
A general rule might very well ascribe correctly a certain trait to a number of strangers, and nevertheless we may not use that rule, because it is crying injustice for 20 % of them. Here we are in the presence of a new paradigm, because the goal is not anymore inductive information, but politically correct information. The social sciences are left for deontology.
This is anti-discrimination in all respects and all its consequences, but are we in the field of justice? Intercultural communication is about social relations, and those should be as just as possible. If so, are we rather in the field of the legislator who works with rules, or before the court where every man comes as innocent before us? The theory of intercultural communication should guide us in the practice of the encounter with other individuals, so it is also about doing justice to the person before us. But there are difficulties: schemas are psychologically inevitable (p. 198) but must never harden. And ethology teaches that humans tend to expel or tease outsiders, because group homogeneity has under certain circumstances a selective advantage (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 2004, p. 533). Therefore, if we want to become non-essentialists, we have to fight actively the impulse to look down on outsiders. We have to deconstruct the situation, step in the shoes of the individual before us and gather a ''thick description'' (p. 8). This is the moral and idealistic commandment of the book.
But is there still place for the concept of 'culture'? It is very well to substitute the stereotype of cultures clashing with a complex picture of cultures melting into each other on contact. But how can we then define the essence of a group and distinguish group capacities and characteristics, either conceptually or in examples? In the book, all generalizing equals 'otherization'. Otherization is defined as ''imagining someone as alien and different to 'us' in such a way that 'they' are excluded from 'our' 'normal', 'superior' and 'civilized' group'' (p.3). The authors quote extensively examples for otherization from literature, science and popular culture (cartoons, advertisements), and from colonialist times to our days. The reader is urged very intelligently to deconstruct the underlying ideology. But if ''culture is basically a group phenomenon which interacts with individual identity'' (p. 152), what group is not excluding and otherizing?
We all agree with the authors that we have to ''avoid the trap of over- generalization'' (p. 3), but in the book any generalization and theory- building is pictured as a trap. The authors succeed in making the reader very attentive to generalization in all forms, so that even the book itself could be criticized in some passages out of its own instruments (e.g. p. 181, Example C2.1.1 reports the situation in very essentialist terms; p. 28 ''out of character'' presupposes a 'true' character that can be in opposition to 'superficial' cultural influences; on p. 193 the authors otherize a critic of Irish in schools, insinuating that he cannot appreciate the Irish language as a consequence of his religion, and not out of his agent quality and autonomous reasoning based on personal experience.).
Without doubt the book teaches the reader to be more attentive and critical towards essentialism, and this is the great achievement of this book. But in some cases the authors go also too far: They sustain on p.186 that it is 'Languacism' (i.e. stereotyping people according to their language use) when we take incorrect pronunciation (pronounce the ''th''-sound as ''f'' for example) as marker for less education. Sociolinguists find a correlation between language standardization and higher education, to name only one thing. Nothing is said about cause relation, and it may be society's fault that some get excluded both from education and language norms. And of course, there are special cases, e.g. when people have another mother-language and are highly educated in another social context. Still, as a rule (or stereotype?), linguistic competences are a meaningful indicator for the time passed in the English education system. To state that fact is not politically incorrect, it is social science. But for the authors, who are talking about morals, it is, because of the close connection between stereotyping, prejudice and otherization (p. 23). There is no reflection of the censorship their stance imposes. For further development of this argument refer to the criticism of political correctness.
The great virtue of the book is that it incites reflection about those almost philosophical questions. It is a bit confusing to find several views instead of one solution. But the real defect of the book is that the authors do not share the main concepts and their writing becomes incoherent and sometimes contradictory. Still, it is a recommendable book, because it leads to the core of the problems in intercultural communication and provides new insights.
One way out of the philosophical dilemma might come from the intriguing metaphor of ''culture cards'' (p.166). Everybody holds a set of culture cards standing for a group membership. ''Some of these cards you cannot change but others you can gain, get rid of, or change, and indeed play.'' (p.166). In this way, the world is not made out of solipsistic individuals in constant need of personal encounter, but of multi-group (multicultural) persons. Membership in a culture becomes something positive in this metaphor, and instead of reducing the other to an alien, it ascribes an asset. As those culture cards are so many, you can be almost sure that you are always able to hold some cards in common. When you play the common cards, you strengthen both yourself and the other, you have found the right channel for communication. Intercultural communication is then not the science of (cultural) difference, but of finding common (cultural) ground.
Leonhard A. G. Voltmer is jurilinguist. He studied law in Munich and Paris, Legal Theory in Brussels and Lund, and Romance Languages in Salzburg and Munich. From 2001 to 2005 he was working for the European Academy of Bolzano (Italy) in terminology, translation and language normation. The experiences in computer-linguistic treatment of multilingual legal data have become a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Munich (http://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/archive/00003716/), which was awarded a magna cum laude. Dr. Voltmer is increasingly involved in lecturing and has given courses for all ages. In 2005/06 he is teaching German in Intercultural Mediation (University of Trento) and for the School of Translators and Interpreters (SSIT) at Forli. Dr. Voltmer's research agenda focuses on the combination of disciplines and discourses: The dialogue between cultures (Intercultural Communication or Mediation), between lawyers and laymen, between computer-linguists and language practitioners, and between the different scientific disciplines in Legal Theory. For more details, visit his website at: http://dev.eurac.edu:8080/autoren/mitarbeiter/lvoltmer/.